On Afghanistan, President Obama will have to answer Sen. Obama's questions.

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Nov. 25 2009 3:47 PM

Self-Examination

On Afghanistan, President Obama will have to answer Sen. Obama's questions.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama

For the last several months, President Obama has been trying to answer Sen. Obama's questions. The president's Afghanistan strategy review has been focused on the same issues Obama raised with Condoleezza Rice in January 2007, when he was on the Senate foreign relations committee and she was testifying about the troop surge in Iraq. Sen. Obama wanted to know how the president was going to force a reluctant partner to perform and when the president would say "enough is enough" if progress wasn't made.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Obama focused then on the three C's (he didn't call them that because he doesn't like gimmicks): contract, conditions, and consequences. Was there a contract between the American and Iraqi governments that included agreed-upon benchmarks the Iraqis promised to meet to show they were building a sustainable government? Would the sending of future troops and money be conditioned on the Iraqis meeting those benchmarks? And what were the consequences if those benchmarks were not met?

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The question for President Obama's Tuesday night address at West Point is whether he will be able to meet his own test. It's clear he's been trying to. That's why his deliberations have been so careful, say aides. He's pressed the Pentagon to come up with clear guidelines for an exit strategy and measures to ensure that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government reduces corruption and is able to build a viable military.

In recent interviews, President Obama has promised that he will give the American people exactly what Sen. Obama was asking for from Condoleezza Rice. "We will be able to present to the American people in very clear terms what exactly is at stake, what we intend to do, how we're going to succeed, how much it's going to cost, how long it's going to take," he told NBC News.

But can Obama really do this? He seems to be promising a kind of antiseptic blueprint, measuring inputs and outputs and signaling points along the way where a little calibration will keep everything on track. The political benefit of this is that the more clearly the president draws the exit, the more easily he will be able to convince people that a troop increase is needed to reach it. But as the Illinois state senator pointed out in his famous 2002 speech opposing the Iraq war, even successful engagements are of undetermined length and cost.

Or, to put it another way: Obama needs to get pretty specific on Tuesday in order to win support for his strategy (that's if Americans who have heard war promises before are still able to be convinced by them). Yet the more specific his claims, the more he boxes himself in down the road if things don't turn out as he pledges.

Will Obama be able to provide precision about the U.S. arrangement with the Karzai government? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called the Afghan government "an unworthy partner." If that's true, all the more reason to get its commitments in writing—and attach them to automatic punishments. Not only would this keep Karzai in line it would help build domestic political support for the operation.

What President Obama knows that Sen. Obama didn't talk about much is that public pressure on a client state can have the opposite of the intended effect. Karzai can't be seen as a mere puppet. If he is, he will lose legitimacy among his constituents, which in turn will weaken his ability to lead, which will make it more difficult for the United States to leave. In the end, it may not be in President Obama's interest to be as specific as Sen. Obama might have liked.

The last question Sen. Obama asked in the hearing about Iraq is President Obama's greatest challenge in Afghanistan: Under what circumstances is the United States prepared to withdraw its troops? What are the consequences if the Karzai government doesn't perform as the president asks? This week president Obama said he is going to "finish the job" in Afghanistan. He made that commitment because a secure Afghanistan is vital to America's national security. At the same time, however, the claim undermines the idea of serious consequences for a government that doesn't perform. If I know you're going to finish the job no matter what, what's my incentive to make interim payments?

In January 2007, Sen. Obama ran out of time before he could get real answers from the secretary of state. On Tuesday night, he'll have as much time as he needs to answer all of his own questions.

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